WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s ruling that a Catholic school in Montgomery County can bypass a special zoning requirement when it adds a building in a residential area.
The high court, without comment Monday, refused to consider a school neighbor’s appeal of a circuit court decision that the separation of church and state bars the county from requiring the church to get a special exception to expand.
Potomac residents Vincent and Birgit Ehlers-Renzi, who live across the street from Connelly School of the Holy Child, challenged the constitutionality of a county ordinance that exempts church-owned property from zoning requirements, including schools on church property.
The Renzis filed suit in May 1999 and won in the U.S. District Court for Maryland. But in August, the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of the school. The Renzis appealed that decision, unsuccessfully, to the Supreme Court.
With the high court’s decision, the school is poised to begin demolition and construction within the next 30 days, said Maureen Appel, the school’s headmistress.
The all-girls parochial school, on 10 acres off Bradley Boulevard, opened in 1961. It has about 440 students in grades 6 through 12 on a campus that includes a large main building, trailers that serve as modular classrooms and a house with an attached chapel. The campus also has athletic fields and parking lots.
The school plans to demolish the house, which was an old convent, to make way for a technology center and middle school classrooms. The school would then get rid of the portable classrooms.
The Renzis claimed that plans for new large building at Connelly School would change the character of the neighborhood. It also would bring unwanted traffic, and bright parking lot lights that would shine directly into neighbors’ windows.
Renzi said he is mostly concerned because the project would increase traffic in the neighborhood.
“The increased traffic will all be very young, very inexperienced drivers,” he said.
But Appel said that, while the school converted two tennis courts into parking two years ago, it does not plan to allow any more students to drive to school.
Renzi said he first learned of Connelly School’s development plans when he saw a surveyor in the neighborhood, a woodsy area of multi-acre lots near the Potomac River’s Great Falls a few miles northwest of the District. A dozen neighbors meet with school officials in the spring of 1999 and learned that the school would not need a zoning variance, Renzi said.
Most developers have to seek a special exception for projects that do not conform to county residential zoning laws. Planning and zoning officials can grant a variance after weighing any adverse impacts to a neighborhood, such as increased noise and traffic.
Appel defended the exemption, saying that if the county tried to restrict traffic or the hours of operation at the school, it might prohibit a Sunday Mass or an event on a religious holiday.
“If our hours of operation were restricted, it might be interfering with our ability to carry out our mission,” she said.
John Roberts Jr., an attorney representing the school, said the case mostly was about one couple’s opposition to the church expansion, noting that no other families in the neighborhood joined the lawsuit against the church project.
“The school has a good relationship with its neighbors,” Roberts said.
Renzi said other neighbors wanted to go to court but, to keep it simple, he and his wife are the only plaintiffs on the lawsuit.
Several religious organizations supported the school in the case, including the American Jewish Congress and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. The Washington and Maryland chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union also supported the school.
Renzi, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 10 years, said he had no animosity toward Connelly School, which had been a good neighbor before the development problem flared up.
“It’s a good school,” Renzi said. “We’ve even made donations in the past.”